In Depth

Latino Journalists Face Touchy Topics

Immigration, Black-Brown Relations on Agenda in Chicago

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists is heading into its fourth Unity Conference with the hot-button issue of immigration reform and how it is covered by the media at the top of its list of concerns.

The organization expects up to 1,200 attendees at Unity ’08, and is sponsoring four panels as well as its Hall of Fame gala awards dinner and ceremony on Friday night at Chicago’s McCormick Place West.

NAHJ was established in 1984, and like its sister organization, the Native American Journalists Association, it will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year.

NAHJ is governed by an 18-member board of directors made up of executive officers and regional directors for various geographic areas across the United States and the Caribbean. The organization is headquartered in Washington and has about 2,300 members.

Its mission is to enhance the recognition and professional advancement of Hispanics in the news business, a road fraught with obstacles—made even greater by consolidation in the media industry and the handling of politically sensitive issues such as immigration.

“Latino journalists have the challenge of dealing with pressures of people in the newsroom who might be wary of a particular agenda or fear they might approach it from an advocacy point of view,” said Iván Román, the executive director of NAHJ. “They are put in the position of having to reassure people all the time that they are being fair journalists. At the same time, they bring a certain perspective that is valuable, yet can still be fair.”

Mr. Román said much of the mainstream media present a skewed and incomplete view of immigration reform in the United States that is colored by right-wing rhetoric. Even the language used is politically charged. His organization objects strenuously to the term “illegal aliens” and also to the term “illegals.”

“Driven by a combination of government action, fear of another 9/11 and political expediency, the immigrants themselves are left without a voice. Most stories are done without really talking to the immigrants, losing the voice and the perspective of the immigrant out there,” he said.
Saturday Session

These issues will be addressed in a NAHJ-sponsored Saturday conference session called “Beyond ‘Illegal Alien’: What’s Fair, Legal and Ethical When Covering Immigration.” Panelists include immigration reporters from the Boston Globe, the Arizona Republic and the Houston Chronicle.

“Pro-immigration or advocacy groups or the ACLU don’t get nearly as much airtime as anti-immigrant groups, who get disproportionate exposure based on faulty facts,” said Mr. Román. “It is a myth that there are two sides to every story. There are more than two, and not all sides have the same weight. You have to look at credibility. There is too much rhetoric not based on fact, and journalists face the challenge of having to sort through it all to do good, balanced, fair coverage.”

The organization’s other panels include “Point of Origin: How to Achieve Three-Dimensional Coverage of Ethnic Communities” and “Covering Cuba: Sin Pelos en la Lengua,” which loosely translates to “Not to Mince Words.”

Another touchy topic that will be taken up at the convention is black-brown relations, especially important during this election cycle. “The discussion is important in society, and it keeps rearing its head because people are afraid, and there may be rivalry, because Latinos now surpass blacks [in population numbers]. There is a tendency for power struggles as opposed to joining together,” Mr. Román said. “We’ve espoused with Unity to come together and to not compete with pathetically low numbers but to fight together to raise that proportion. It’s important for more of us to be there to bring a perspective that’s more prevalent than the media reflects.”

To that end, the organization’s Parity Project seeks to increase the number of Latino journalists working in U.S. media and has made great strides since its launch in 2002 by Juan Gonzalez, co-founder and former president of NAHJ. The project partners with media outlets in 25 markets with large Hispanic populations and has counted 182 hires to date. While Hispanics make up about 15% of the U.S. population, they represent only 4% to 6% of journalists working in print and broadcast newsrooms.

Another key part of the Parity Project is community involvement, with town hall and community meetings and two-way dialogues between media outlets and members of the community.

“Many people felt the media was untouchable, and now they feel empowered, that the local media is concerned about views of Hispanics and concerned about fair and accurate portrayals,” said Kevin Olivas, director of the Parity Project. “In the past, many of the stories tended to be negative, about people on welfare or drugs. In reality, there are many teachers, tradespeople and businesspeople contributing to the good of the community. We were able to get access and inclusion. We view that as a good thing.”

The Parity Project will continue indefinitely. It is funded by grants, but the organization is looking for ways to make it more self-sustaining.

“We are concerned about media consolidation, and journalists leaving the business because of layoffs, buyouts or the fact that they’re frustrated by not having a voice in the news decision-making process or feeling they had no chance for advancement,” Mr. Olivas said. “We also want to establish a pipeline to new talent by sending established journalists out to speak at high schools and colleges, to help them develop the next generation of great storytellers.”
‘Renewed’ Purpose

NAHJ member Marty Guerrero is a television news writer at KCBS-TV in Los Angeles who will be attending her third Unity conference. “Each time I come back with a renewed sense of purpose and of community with all people of color. There are very few of us,” said Ms. Guerrero. Twenty years ago, she said, she was the only Latina line producer at CNN in Atlanta, and she is still concerned about the lack of minority voices in the newsroom. While at CNN, she fought institutionalized racism by doing away with using the same file footage of minorities to illustrate stories about poor people.

At NAHJ’s formal gala at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, three people will be inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame. The honorees are Mr. Gonzalez, NAHJ founder, former NAHJ president and founder of the NAHJ Parity Project, Unity founder, columnist at the New York Daily News and co-host of Democracy Now!; Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, associate professor of journalism, University of Texas at Austin, and director of the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project; and 19th-century journalism pioneer Francisco P. Ramirez, editor of El Clamor Público in California, an influential newspaper established in the 1850s when the territory first became a state.

The President’s Award will go to Augie Nieto, a fitness company executive who leads a major fund-raising drive to find a cure for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.